May 30, 2012
I went to get fingerprinted for a teaching gig in upstate New York this coming fall. Because Ulster County Community College is part of the state system, Homeland Security takes an interest in its employees. A great interest. I reluctantly filled out several forms and made an appointment for finger printing. I want to teach, after all, and if Homeland Security finds me interesting, so be it. I had long ago—after 9/11—decided not to worry about surveillance or loss of privacy. I take it as a fait accompli and remind myself that, fundamentally, we live in a free society and it is my mandate to remain free in mind and spirit. Let’s say, for example, that this blog is being scanned. That won’t stop me from writing what I want to write. That said, unlike artists and writers in China, I am not in danger of being incarcerated or persecuted.
More than a decade ago, I had been called for Grand Jury and was ink- rolled fingerprinted. Years later, the prints arrived in the mail. They were mine again, so to speak. I still have the manila card with those prints in a file somewhere in my memorabilia trunk. I didn’t want to throw them away; they seemed precious.
A writer doesn’t necessarily write with her hands; she can dictate or, if disabled, even hold a pen or pencil with her mouth or feet. Remember the movie “My Left Foot?” with Daniel Day Lewis based on the book by Christy Brown. Born with cerebral palsy, Brown learned to paint and write with his left foot. Or consider “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a beautiful book by Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffered a stroke in his 40’s. That book was written by “pointing” to letters on a board by blinking. Both stories are more than inspirational to a writer sound in mind and body. Whatever should I be complaining about? Yet, the electronic fingerprinting process at a firm in mid-town Manhattan became an ordeal for me. It somehow threatened my identity as a writer who uses her hands to write. Straight from the machine into the computer, or something like that, never to be returned and stored in my memorabilia trunk.
The tech, Michelle Prado, trained in forensics, worked on my fingers for nearly an hour trying to get a “pass” scan. Four were rejected, one finger more than necessary for a “pass” grade to Homeland Security.
Dear reader, my fingerprints have faded. According to Michelle, this is very common among writers who type away at keyboards every day, people who use chemicals, and/or very old people. Would it make a difference to use the old ink method? Probably not, Michelle said.
She brought in another tech to help out, someone with a light touch, she explained. Had Michelle tried a special oil? No, not yet. So we tried the oil. No luck. Both women were very kind; they didn’t want me to have to come back. Why would it make any difference? I asked. Surely my fingerprints are gone, faded, never to surface again, stolen by use and time. What happens if too many fingers are “rejected” the second time?
“They’ll order a criminal background check,” Michelle said.
I wrote to the Director of the department I’ll be working for to explain what had happened and to suggest that the cash-strapped college save their money on a second round of fingerprinting and run a background check right away. She thanked me for the heads-up and suggested that my experience might make for an interesting plot of a detective novel.
May 23, 2012
I went onto my website yesterday and my Facebook Carol Bergman: Writer page to announce that “Sitting for Klimt,” my first book of novellas, originally published in 2006, is now available as an ebook. I then realized that my website was peppered with the word ebook and that I had spelled it differently each time. I didn’t even realize that I had no idea how to spell ebook, that there are no stylistic guidelines, and that the word—it is now a word, after all—has so recently entered our lexicon that there is no definitive spelling. Not even my Word spell check can decide; it gives me all the choices.
Dear reader, you can see here which spelling I have settled on—for the moment. I suppose it reminds me of email. The origin of this truncated word blend—electronic mail—has already been lost and the word email itself has become the symbolic embodiment of this now pervasive form of communication. And though the advent of electronic books is more recent, we are already calling them by their affectionate nickname. No one says or writes electronic books any more.
I know that this discussion is not very important and that whatever I say or do won’t make any difference. Eventually simple usage will determine the final form of the spelling, or we will accept a variety of spellings. The sudden appearance of new words is minor compared to the significant shifts in the publishing landscape itself. By next year, or next month, what I have written here will be old news.
May 16, 2012
I have not written much since my mother's death on April 21. I covered the World Voices Festival because I had committed to do so, but it was difficult. I kept my journal going. Now I am working on a long essay and writing for several hours every day. A writer makes something of every experience, including death. The essay is about my mother's will and wills in general, what they say to us, how they are written, often in legalese without any feeling. I’ve looked at holographic wills—written by hand—and studied Ben Franklin’s will and others. In other words, I’m into a project again and this feels good, it feels right.
I took a break last weekend, Mother’s Day weekend, the first one without my own mother, and I went upstate to spend time with my family there. My son-in-law is building a permaculture forest in a pasture surrounded by mountains. My daughter and I drove up there prepared to be put to work. We helped plant strawberries for several hours. I took rests to stretch my back, the dogs lying beside me or romping in one of the three newly dug irrigation pools. The sun was already strong though it was windy and deceptively cool. Mother’s Day brunch the next day was communal, friends and their children, French toast and fruit salad, and warm enough to sit on the porch or meander outside. We left after the brunch to get back to the city and our computers. But I could have stayed on that mountaintop forever.
May 5, 2012
I arrived at the dialogue session without any expectations as—dare I admit it—I have not read any of Jennifer Egan’s books. I think she would have approved of my open spirit as I listened to her answer questions about craft and non-linear musical structure. Unlike Dickens, Irving, and others, she has no idea where she is going when she begins and doesn’t much care about classical form. One story in her new book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is written in power point.
Is she supremely self-confident? A renegade? Having won prizes—the Pulitzer, the National Book Award—Egan’s apparent self-confidence might be understandable if it were not an illusion even to herself. “I have a catastrophic imagination,” she said. That woke me up and also sounded familiar. So, too, her decision to dedicate “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” to her therapist.
Goon Squad came together as a consequence of avoiding another book that was not going well. Suddenly, she said, disconnected stories felt connected, as though a large land mass was sitting under them and keeping them together. So she began to fool around with other stories, evolving characters, and obsessions that might work in a sequence. Often they didn’t and she put them away. “When do you stop working on a story?” she was asked. “When it no longer interests me,” Egan replied.
She relies on her writer’s group—it has been meeting for twenty years—to let her know if a story is alive or not. But even if they say it is, she may not agree, especially if she feels exhausted by revision. That means something has gone wrong.
I found Egan honest and inspiring and came home eager to begin writing some fiction again myself, but I also wondered if the PEN World Voices Festival will ever include writers in a discussion who have not won important prizes—which is most of us—thus liberating the event from the power of celebrity and the market driven universe in which we all work.
May 4, 2012
It makes sense that an established prize-winning author might view social media, new platforms, and the complicated challenges of contemporary publishing with indifference if not disdain. Jonathan Franzen, for example, claims that social media leaves nothing to the imagination. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Margaret Atwood talk about new technologies with wit, irreverence, curiosity and respect. The new technologies are, after all, human artifacts. We have created them and whether we put them to good use (the light side) or abuse them (the dark side) is entirely up to us
In conversation with Amy Grace Loyd, Executive Editor of Byliner, the two women seemed to be friends in casual conversation at a café. Loyd, in fact, is one of Atwood's editors—there were quips about commas—and Byliner is a relatively new online publication, another testament to Atwood's innovative approach to her own career. She has a strong business sense and clearly believes that writers should be able to earn a living.
Atwood admitted that she has 319,000 followers on Twitter, that she tweets about fifteen minutes a day, but is often tempted to return, especially if she is ensconced in a hotel room.
Atwood has had a long, productive career. Her first short story was published in a Canadian literary magazine; she then moved into radio. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) had an anthology radio program. The books came later. And, yes, she still owns books, lots of them, and is loathe to give them away. They are piled all over her house. She has to remember where they are so as not to trip on them.
The most telling moment of the evening was during the Q& A at the end. A woman came up to the mike with print-outs of a news article about amazon removing small literary presses from their data base. She was incensed and her question was more like a screed. Atwood interrupted her with politeness and aplomb: "Do you know that in China the character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity? Why don't these small publishers get together as a collective, design a website, and sell their books?"
Despite this sage advice, the woman continued and Atwood interrupted her again. "What are these publishers and their authors waiting for?"
May 3, 2012
My mother died just over a week ago. I lit a memorial candle when I came home from the funeral and it was still burning yesterday morning, beyond its time. My mother was a complicated, forceful, intelligent, challenging woman. Psychically damaged by her experiences during World War II and the murder of her family—our family—she was not particularly loving or sweet. Memorable, yes. Remarkable, certainly, but not sweet. Yet many condolence notes have said she was “sweet.” I do realize that these notes are meant to console and am grateful for them. And I do realize that not everyone is a writer who searches for the right words to say. Stock phrases surface that have been used by others: “I am sorry for your loss,” for example.
Equally, I have always been disturbed by the way in which survivors soften loss with exaggerations, untruths and omissions. Are we afraid that if we speak the truth to ourselves and one another at a funeral or memorial we will be cursed?
As she lay dying in the hospital—and even that phrase sounds familiar, the title of a book by William Faulkner—we talked to my mother, stroked her, and played her Beethoven and Mozart. I read her Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils. We told her how much we loved her for hours and hours, suppressing our ambivalent feelings. We wanted her to have a peaceful end and we all wanted to feel peaceful at her end.
My mother was gone for me as soon as she drew her last breath and, as a scientist, she would have maintained that all that was left of her on earth was her cadaver. Yet, unbeknownst to us, she had directed the funeral home to bury her in a shroud, an ancient practice still prevalent among Muslims and Orthodox Jews. The image of a shrouded corpse slipping into the desert sand is a powerful one charged with history in the land of my family’s origins. I carried it with me into the synagogue for the service and our honest words of praise known as eulogies.